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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Picturing Culture

iLCP Executive Director Cristina Mittermeier is at the forefront of the modern conservation movement

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While Cristina Mittermeier has a well-established reputation as a wildlife photographer, capturing people is perhaps her greatest passion. She has devoted much of her time to working with communities around the world whose survival is closely tied to the health of the environment. Above and below right: These images were taken while Mittermeier was on an expedition in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, with the iLCP. She was one of 32 photographers to document various environmental threats affecting the area. She focused on the impact to local fishing and cattle ranching communities.

By accident, Cristina Mittermeier found her way into photography. She was lugging around her husband’s camera equipment and began doing some shooting of her own. Her images would sometimes get mixed up with his and end up in print. Since those early days, Mittermeier has traveled the world as a nature photographer, spending time in nearly every country in South America and Europe, as well as China, India, Australia and South Africa. She also managed to start the rapidly growing International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Consisting of a who’s who of nature photography, the group has become a powerful force in furthering environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. Many of the photographers associated with the iLCP work with top organizations like Conservation International, the International Wilderness Leadership Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, among many others.

Early on, Mittermeier understood the importance of conservation in a way that few do. Born and raised in Mexico City, her original training was as a marine biologist, and her first job was working for Conservation International in Mexico for the preservation of the Gulf of California and La Selva Lacandona rain forest. She participated in the original management plans for various protected areas in both regions and helped negotiate Conservation International’s first debt-for-nature swap in Mexico.

“It turned out to be a fantastic turn of careers,” says Mittermeier. “Scientific pursuit is so time consuming, so all consuming. You have to dedicate yourself to keeping up with the constant advancements. It’s very labor-intensive. When you publish something in a science journal, it goes to a limited audience. If you take the same idea and use imagery to translate it, the audience becomes bigger. It’s so much more effective.”

Mittermeier’s background would prove to be invaluable, however. How she chooses her projects and from what angle she covers them is informed by science. What’s challenging for many photographers who set out to document the environment is having a great deal of awareness of what the important issues are without understanding why. So partnering with scientists and conservation groups not only is helpful, but the effect is more lasting.

Realizing there were many photographers out there using their work to tackle critical issues like climate change, habitat preservation, deforestation and un-protected corridors, Mittermeier reached out to some of the biggest names in environmental photography. With people like Art Wolfe, Gary Braasch, Jack Dykinga and Frans Lanting on board, she was able to lay a solid foundation even though she was initially told it would be impossible to get a group of this caliber to work together. Mittermeier found the exact opposite to be true.


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